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Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles (PSP) artwork

Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles (PSP) review

"Classic game compilations are an oddity. You plunk down cash for them while fondly remembering the “glory days” in which the included games were made, and often realize after ten minutes of play that your favorite games of yesteryear were garbage. Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles is an exception. Composed of a 3D remake of the formerly Japan-only Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, the original PC-Engine version of Rondo of Blood, and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

Classic game compilations are an oddity. You plunk down cash for them while fondly remembering the “glory days” in which the included games were made, and often realize after ten minutes of play that your favorite games of yesteryear were garbage. Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles is an exception. Composed of a 3D remake of the formerly Japan-only Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, the original PC-Engine version of Rondo of Blood, and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, this is one of the best compilations ever released.

The “Dracula X Chronicles” subtitle refers to the two part storyline that begins in Rondo of Blood and ends in Symphony of the Night. Rondo spins a familiar tale: you are Richter Belmont who, as a Belmont, is doomed to fight Lord Dracula. It’s simple setup, to be sure. This was the first Castlevania to rely heavily on cinematics to tell the story and as a result, there’s more plot and more personality to the characters than in previous games. Symphony of the Night takes place five years after the events of Rondo. The main character this time is Alucard, the son of Dracula, who enters the castle with the intention of putting an end to his father’s plans. These stories have never been much more than excuses to give you hordes of enemies to kill, but it’s nice to have both halves of the story collected here (especially since very few American gamers have played the first half) as they make the Dracula X plot feel more cohesive.

The star of the show in Dracula X Chronicles, and the only game available to you from the start, is the 3D remake of Castlevania: Rondo of Blood. The original iteration of the game was released in Japan back in 1993 and never saw a US release. Finally remedying the situation, Konami has crafted a remake of the game that feels like a solid improvement over the original. It was worth the wait, because Rondo of Blood is easily the best of the old-school, level-based Castlevania games.

Your journey begins in a burning town. How pleasant.

The gameplay is very similar to that of older Castlevania games -- you travel from point A to point B and kill a lot of monsters of the night with your whip and a variety of subweapons. It’s a straightforward formula and Rondo doesn’t deviate from past games too much. In fact, the only real changes to the classic gameplay are the ability to perform a backflip and an “item crash” where Richter dishes out a massive attack with his subweapon. So, what propels Rondo above the rest of the crowd? Level design; pure and simple. Rondo’s stages are phenomenally well-constructed and offer a perfect blend of tricky platforming and combat. The frustrating segments that plagued most prior Castlevanias have finally been eliminated. As a result, each level is fun and there isn’t a moment where the game will feel like a chore to complete. There’s also quite a bit of variety to the different stages and, while you’ll still spend most of your time in Dracula’s castle, no two levels feel overly similar.

While Rondo might be a level-based game, it most assuredly isn’t a linear one. Most of the stages have multiple paths through them and there are even a number of hidden stages that are entirely optional. What this means is that you’ll have to play through Rondo several times to see everything that the game has to offer, so there’s some definite incentive to replay levels. There’s also a second playable character in the form of Maria Renard, whom Richter can rescue early into the game. She plays quite differently from Richter and provides further reason to dig deeper into the game.

The most brilliant level design in the world is meaningless if the core gameplay doesn’t feel solid, though. The problem that plagues countless 3D games with 2D, sidescrolling gameplay is shoddy control. Far too often, implementing 3D graphics into a sidescroller causes movement to feel mushy or inaccurate. Not here. Rondo of Blood makes the transition from 2D to 3D without a hitch, and the controls feel tight. Richter obeys your commands without hesitation, and it’s a good thing, because this is a very demanding game. Older Castlevania games are notorious for being tough as nails, and while Rondo isn’t the hardest Castlevania game out there, it’s definitely challenging. Even the most miniscule of enemies are capable of putting Richter in his grave fairly quickly, so you’ll need to act quickly and with precision. On the bright side, the difficulty never becomes overwhelming and deaths aren’t cheap or unfair because each enemy follows distinct patterns that allow you to determine exactly what’s coming next. Because the difficulty is finely tuned rather than frustrating, stages and boss battles are thrilling experiences. The game pushes you more and more as the conclusion draws nearer and you’ll enjoy the struggle, even if you’re typically difficulty-averse.

This is a boss. This is not your friend.

The 3D graphics are conducive to the classic Castlevania gameplay, but they also look very good from a technical standpoint. The animation is smooth and looks natural, there’s more than enough detail to bring each inhabitant of Dracula’s castle to life, and the stages all look lovingly hand-crafted. The visuals strike a balance between being true to the PC Engine original and offering something unique. The audio side of things is absolutely fantastic. The series is known for its music and Rondo doesn’t disappoint. The remake consists of remixed songs from the original game that are remarkably well-done. The music has a decidedly jazzier feel than you might expect from Castlevania, but it still fits seamlessly and sounds unique. Considering that the last several games in the series have been on the DS and GBA and thus, had weak sound hardware to work with, it’s great to hear this series hitting the high notes once again. The cut scenes are all voiced, and you can choose between Japanese dubbing and English dubbing. While the English acting is bad, the Japanese acting is expressive and well-delivered, so having that option is a blessing.

Rondo simply doesn’t falter in terms of pure fun and its technical side is very solid. It’s a fairly short game, though, and will likely take under six hours to complete the first time. Of course, that’s to say nothing of the wealth of secrets the game has in store for dedicated players. For the purists, there’s also the original PC Engine version of Rondo of Blood that can be unlocked by finding a certain item in the remake. The Rondo port is good -- the emulation of the video and audio are both adequate, and while a few sounds are a little bit off, this is still the original Rondo of Blood in all its glory. The original game understandably feels a bit different than the remake considering that it’s 2D rather than 3D, and its worth playing through just to see what was changed. Of course, Rondo of Blood is really only half of what this compilation has to offer. One you’ve had your fill, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night offers an even better experience.

Symphony of the Night represented a departure from the series’ conventions and ditched the level-based gameplay in favor of a giant, interconnected castle that you gradually explore. This is also the gameplay style that all of the Castlevanias since SOTN have utilized, but none have matched it. That’s because Symphony set the bar insanely high. The map of the castle is tightly woven and is devoid of stretches that feel too long or pointless. The developers nailed the sense of progression in the game as upgrades to Alucard’s abilities are doled out at a constant, yet reasonable, rate. SOTN features quite a bit of depth compared to the Belmonts’ adventures thanks to the inclusion of some light RPG elements. Alucard can equip a variety of items ranging from countless weapons and defensive items to cloaks and jewelry. You also have a set number of hit points that can be raised through health-enhancing potions and leveling up as opposed to a fixed health bar. This added complexity makes SOTN significantly more involving than prior entries in the series and amazingly, none of these elements feel out of place or unnecessary. SOTN is a moderately lengthy game and should take you quite a bit longer than Rondo of Blood if you explore the castle thoroughly (and there is a lot to be found.) Like Rondo, Symphony is an absolute joy to play from start to finish and at no point in your quest will you find yourself becoming bored.

Rondo is a constant challenge. You�ll love it.

The PSP retooling of SOTN doesn’t change much, but there’s still some noteworthy alterations. Graphically, the game still looks fantastic. The 2D sprites are as detailed as ever and the game retains its original aspect ratio rather than being artificially stretched out to fill the screen (though a true widescreen option would have been nice.) The only significant change to the graphics is the newly improved frame rate. SOTN runs smoother now than it ever has. The slowdown that plagued past versions of the game is gone and Alucard now drifts fluidly through the entire world. The only technical misstep of the PSP version comes is the sound effects. A number of sounds are a bit different than what the original PS1 version had. They aren’t bad, but some purists will likely complain that they aren’t the same. Luckily, the important part of the audio, the music, is better than it has ever been. The soundtrack never misses a beat and actually sounds less compressed than the audio on the PS1 version of the game. Given that SOTN’s soundtrack is widely considered one of the best of all time; the audio quality is definitely something to be happy about. Since its initial US release, SOTN has been notorious for its comically bad English voice acting. That’s been thrown out in favor of newly recorded, similarly atrocious English voice acting. Thankfully, Konami also included Japanese audio which is a vast improvement. While there’s a certain charm to having Dracula explain to you that a man is “a miserable little pile of secrets,” it’s nice that the storyline can finally be taken somewhat seriously.

As far as pure gameplay additions go, there’s little to speak of. The major change is the inclusion of Maria Renard as a playable character. This isn’t the same Maria from the Japanese Saturn version, though -- she plays completely differently. She’s about as fun to use as Richter is, so her presence is a reasonably worthwhile addition to the game. There are also some subtle tweaks to the gameplay and difficulty that will likely only be noticed by people who have played the game numerous times in the past, but they certainly don’t hurt. All things considered, the PSP version is the definitive version of Symphony of the Night and while it doesn’t change much, its improvements do make a difference.

Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles takes two astoundingly good entries in the Castlevania series, updates them, and puts them on a single disc for a semi-budget price. If you’re a Castlevania fan, the only rational option is to buy this compilation. If you’re a PSP owner who’s even a casual fan of action games, you’ll inevitably find something to enjoy. This is a love letter to fans of the series and it absolutely should not be missed.

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Community review by Daisuke02 (October 28, 2007)

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Masters posted March 10, 2009:

Super review of a great 'collection'.

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